I recently had an opportunity to get to know Helen and Joe, who have a long association with RSVP (Retired & Senior Volunteer Program). We met at my home in Seattle. I was somewhat surprised when we made this arrangement that they agreed to meet in the city, as it entailed driving in from their home in Bellevue. After our meeting, I realized that if I’d already known them, I wouldn’t have been surprised, as so much of their lives is devoted to doing for others that accommodating my need was only a small part of all that they do to help others.
Before our meeting, they sent me a three-page summary of their organizational work. It was very impressive and therefore I fantasized that though they are an older couple, they would surely be limber and fast paced to accomplish so much. In fact, Helen walks slowly, arm in arm with Joe to ensure her balance, after overcoming serious medical issues. She speaks carefully, in measured tones, and when she smiles her face lights up, suggesting her quick intelligence. Joe is tall and looks quite fit, but in fact he had bypass surgery years ago, and other health problems have forced him to slow down. Nevertheless, he has a ready smile and a fine sense of humor.
Helen and Joe both turn 81 years old in December. They began their lives in Rhode Island, born into families of very modest means who worked hard to support big families. Helen and Joe found each other during their high school years but waited to marry until Joe graduated from college. They will be married 60 years come June 2014. They have eight children who have given them 35 grandchildren and soon will have 19 great-grandchildren.
During the early years of their marriage, they made six moves to different localities on the east coast for Joe’s employment. Their seventh move in 1970 was to Bellevue, WA. The family, including the children, consulted on a further move but together decided that this would be their last move as they were making friends and wanted to settle down. So Joe and Helen have been living in their present home ever since.
As I listened to their story I couldn’t help but wonder how they had managed it all, and my wonder grew as I heard more. Their responsibilities didn’t cease at the door to their home. Rather, they both felt an obligation to serve the community beyond their doors and to help wherever help was needed. Listening to their story about their work with a variety of service programs, I understood why they so readily agreed to accommodate me and come to my home.
While Joe was working as a sales manager for a business forms and systems company, Helen had the care of their children and brought them up with concepts of service and responsibility. It was a family ritual to have weekly meetings to iron out difficulties and to make decisions together. They encouraged their children to make decisions about their personal lives and to be responsible for the outcomes. Several of the children made their own way through college. I had the impression that all their children carry on a tradition of service.
I asked Joe whether he approached his retirement in 1997 with plans for the future. He told me that he felt there were so many things he could do and with Helen’s encouragement he approached the issue methodically, filling several sheets with notes about what to do. He had already worked as a volunteer in the Fire Department, the Boy Scouts and their church, and Helen was similarly engaged, but since Joe’s retirement they decided to work together.
One of their volunteer positions is SeniorNet, an RSVP site, where they teach computer skills. Helen taught herself the use of the computer and then taught Joe. She is presently serving as the Public Relations Director for SeniorNet and organized workshops for them at several sites in a joint venture with Microsoft and AARP. The program has been so successful that it may be introduced in other cities. Joe has served as Treasurer for SeniorNet and also served on their Board of Directors.
In the past, both have served on RSVP’s Volunteer of the Year selection committee and also serve as Ambassadors, speaking to community groups about RSVP. They have also been involved for many years with the work of their church. I counted at least nine church committees and programs on which they serve, one of which is a Marriage Preparation Program where they lead group discussions for those planning to marry. They have been doing this for 35 years and find that the ability to listen is the most important quality for their role. They’ve also been involved in building projects and more recently became volunteers for Chore Services.
If these activities seem sufficiently large undertakings, it is actually an incomplete listing of all they do. I wondered if it leaves them any time for relaxation and recreation. I learned that they have owned a Winnebago for many years. When their children lived with them, it was the most inexpensive way to vacation with a large family, but they continued as a couple to recreate in this way. They belong to a club for Winnebago owners called Winnebago Industries Travelers and can count on taking club trips at least once a month. They’ve traveled all over with the club, finding it a wonderful path to friendships and sociability. Of course, in this too they have responsibilities. Helen was State President of the club and Joe has been serving as Treasurer and Registrar for Regional Rallies.
Helen put it succinctly when she said that people are their hobby; their goal in life has been to change the world and leave it a better place. To a remarkable degree they have done everything possible to attain these goals, and their example left me in awe and feeling inspired.